Archive for November, 2010

Texas Thanksgiving

I’ve just come back from my first Texas Thanksgiving. The absolute highlight was a deep fried turkey. YEs it does sound awful but actually it was the best turkey I’ve ever tasted. The oil is heated to around 300 degrees F in a  special cooker, then the turkey is lowered in. It was quite a big bird but it cooked in about 40 mins. It cooks the meat so quickly and keeps the moisture in, so it tastes great. Unlike the usual cardboard that you get after you’ve roasted one of these birds for hours, the meat is moist and delicious. Because the oil is so hot it crisps the outside but it doesn’t soak in. Wow.

Actually this method of cooking is the biggest cuase of Thanksgiving fires. I think that’s to a large extent because people cook them indoors. That’s just not too bright is it? Even worse, if you use a frozen turkey you can turn it into a surface air missile by dropping it into the hot fat. Scary but worth watching from a distance maybe…

Another strange Thanksgiving dish I heard about is the Turdurken. This is a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed into a de-boned turkey. Why would anyone inflict such horror on these birds I have no idea. I bet it’s a Southern US thing – I haven’t heard of anything similar that doesn’t involve either a) swans or b) Henry VIII.

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What’s with you and the taxi drivers?

It’s strange. Of all the posts I’ve added recently, pretty much the only topic that has really provoked people to comment (offline) is my comment about taxi drivers.  So everyone has been asking “what’s with you and taxi drivers?” or possibly more accurately; “what’s with taxi drivers and you?”.

The truth is, the best cabbies in the world are in London. They really know their stuff, they know the roads, the routes, the hotels. It pretty much spoils you for them the rest of the word over.

In Italy, it was always a case of “OK so I might be foreign but I can still count. Now please give me the rest of my change….” Usually followed by a sheepish look or shoulder shrug from the driver.

In Amsterdam I’ve been driven around for an hour then randomly dropped off at a cab rank when the driver couldn’t find where we were going.

In Egypt I’ve been driven around at night in a taxi with its headlights off – apparently to save electricity. (sadly true)

In China, it’s the fact that they are blatently trying to rip you off. All those stories about it being a longer route on the way back, the heavy traffic means you need to come off the meter or the dodginess when they surrepticiously remove their signs and pop the meter on a higher rate.

But it isn’t just me. Here’s the evidence. When you take a cab back to the hotel in Beijing, the meeters/ greeters/ porters hand you a card like the below. Clearly there’s a problem.

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Up close and personal with Beijing traffic

Another highlight of the trip was my whistlestop tour of Beijing by night in a motorcycle sidecar.  I’d been in Beijing for a week – but given my work commitments I hadn’t really seen that much other than a couple of cheeky lunctime excursions to the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. So the sidecar seemed like a good way to pack as much into a couple of hours as possible,

Once in it, it took me a while to get over the distinct feeling that I was in a Wallace and Gromit film (I mean who else has a sidecar – apart from perhaps one of the two fat ladies?) and just about to perform a sheep-based acrobatic display.

Actually it was great fun and we covered a lot of ground. I think the biggest impression this left on me is how much Beijing is changing. Thanks to the Olympics, a great deal is brand new – a really great underground system (with English stop signs – hurrah) and some really amazing architecture. Some well known examples are the Olympic stadium birdsnest and the Opera House Egg – both visually stunning, but there are many other buildings that are really very impressive.

At night the city is stunning –I saw Tiannamen Square, the bright lights of the bars and restaurants along the canal, the streets with thousands of lanterns. My favourite bits were the Hutongs – the mazes of narrow alleys that used to be everywhere in Beijing and are now slowly disappearing. Some were the gentrified Hutongs, with chi-chi restaurants and nice shops, others were more authentic. The bike could easily navigate areas where a car could not – it felt like I was watching a slice of local life – watching the man doing unmentionable things to a chicken carcass in the street, the piles of cabbage stacked everywhere, the street sellers selling everything and anything and the general bustle of people.

Zooming along so close to everything was great, but one of the highlights was actually having a go. It was a bit surreal – riding a bike and sidecar around the middle road of the Forbidden City. It’s a really weird thing to ride as it doesn’t feel like a motorbike at all but certainly an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.

I think the biggest surprise for me was the fact that I really liked the city. Aside from the smog, it’s a vibrant place with charming people. I actually think I could live there.

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My trip to the Great Wall.

On my day off during my visit to Beijing I visited the Great Wall.  It really was the most amazing experience – completely breathtaking scenery and a challenging enough route to give me a real sense of accomplishment. I’m still smiling.

I’d undertaken some research about where to go. Most tours seem to go to a couple of the sections quite close to Beijing. Most of these have been significantly renovated, or rather rebuilt to the extent that they are far from authentic – in fact some people refer to these bits as “the Disney Wall”. Also, with car parks and gondolas making it so easy to get to these sections, they are packed with visitors – not ideal for my planned weekend visit.

So I found a tour that was more up my street – a guided viist to Jiankao –an area that is original, remote and quite rugged.

The hike totally exceeded my expectations – not least of all because of the feeling of accomplishment I felt at the end of the hike. My guide asked me on the way up if I preferred a flat section or a more up and down section. I figured that the up and down bits would be more interesting so off we set. When we got there it quickly became apparent that “up and down” translated from the original Chinese means “vertical ascents and descents”. So much of the time on the wall was spent literally scrambling up or down sections of the wall that had crumbled. It wasn’t *quite* rock climbing as the bricks and side walls made for great hand and footholds but it was certainly close. An bearing in mind that the wall was build essentially along a mountain ridge it was a long way down. It was only when I was clinging onto one of the trickier sections that I remembered the guide’s apparently conversational enquiry in the car whether I was scared of heights… Afterwards he told me that he has had to virtually winch some people up on a rope when they were paralysed with previously unencounterd vertigo. Yikes!

The fact that this section really was off the beaten track meant that the whole day we saw only approx a dozen people, all Chinese, and only near the paths from the nearby village. The rest of the time, we were pretty much alone with the wall and the spectacular scenery. The absence of people made it much easier to appreciate the sheer feat of engineering. Some sections that were partially crumbling allow you to see all the brickwork that went into building it. Every single rock had to be carried up a mountain. It’s just mindboggling.

The scenery was breathtaking. Ruggedly corrugated mountains stretch to the horizon on all sides, with the wall snaking along the mountain ridge. I felt like I was standing on the top of the world.  I know people say this is one of the wonders of the world – but it takes seeing it up close to appreciate the sheer audacity of building thousands of miles of wall across a seriously inhospitable landscape. I can’t help wondering how the intial orders went down. “Right lads, we’re going to build the biggest wall EVER to keep the Mongols out.” “But the mountains keep the Mongols out. “That right we’ll build it on top of the mountains.” You can only have respect for those folk. Now if only we could get them working on some much easier road projects closer to home…roads nearer to home.

Check out some more of the pictures here.

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Beijing curiosities

I’ve been in Beijing all week. I have been surprised to find that I really liked it (apart from the smog – OMG). It’s certainly an intriguing place – right in the middle of an extraordinary amount of change. Some random observations in no particular order:

–       the  hotel changed the carpet in the lifts every day to tell you what day of the week it was – helpful when friends and family are a whole day away.

–       Riding a motorcycle with Side Car around the Forbidden City at night – mad! More to come on this…

–       why are taxi drivers all such con artists? I might be foreign but I’m not buying the “ there’s lots of traffic and a longer way back”. Just put it on the meter and stop mucking around.

–       Wow the air quality is bad. Various organisations such as Greenpeace and the US embassy publish hourly airquality updates.

–       Chinese Personal space is not very large – I guess it can’t be. In the underground that makes for some close encounters (eek). It also extends to traffic, with pedestrians, bicycles and cars manouevering at speed between people and cars just inches from each other (scary).

–       Beijing has approx 4.5 MILLION cars. Most of them are less than three years old. Most of the drivers have held a licence for less than three years. That’s pretty darn scary if you think about it.

– the weirdest item of clothing I saw was crochet hot pants. Yes. Crochet hot pants.

–       The best meal I had was a hot box – a sort of Chinese fondue that’s integrated into the table. The box is filled with water/ stock and spices and once it is boiling you cook thin strips of meat and veg in it. Once that’s done you bung in the noodles and have noodle soup. Great!

–       The airport just seems to work. Who’d have thought!It’s now one of the top ten airports in the world – I can believe it. One weird thing however is that they have an extra bag check at the gate for international flights where they take any liquids off you. Annoying if like me you like to buy water for the flight as it’s hard to stay hydrated with the frequency of United glass refills…

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Fuelling irritation

I often drive through New Jersey (or Noo Joysey as the locals call it) as it is only twenty minutes from home. However if I am in or near there I will make a significant detour to avoid filling up with petrol. Why? Because all the petrol stations are “Full Service”. While that sounds fairly promising, it just means that they won’t let you operate the pumps yourself.

How does it work? You pull up next to the pump as usual. Then you sit there apparently invisible while the pump attendants lie in hiding. The only way you can get them to appear Mr Ben-like, is when you get out of the car and start messing with the pump/ paying for your petrol. At that point a usually bad tempered and dishevelled character appears like Mr Ben, transfers it a total of nine inches to the payment machine on the pump. They then generally need help getting the slightly fiddly petrol cap off before they set the pumps to dispense. One useful thing here in the US is a little prong on the pump handle that allows it to dispense until cut-off without you having to go to the trouble of holding the handle in. That’s presumably because, thanks to  the enormous gas-guzzling blancmange mobiles they drive here, holding that pump might get perilously close to exercise. Anyway, my car has a small tank (about 9 US gallons if you are interested) so it fills up pretty quickly. Which generally means I then have to sit there waiting for the chap to take it out again…

Now I think there’s an extra charge embedded in the price of petrol for all this value adding service. I wouldn’t mind QUITE so much if they actually did something useful, such as checking your oil or cleaning your windscreen like they used to do in some of Continental Europe. But they don’t.  The only small benefit is if it is really cold out, and you can sit in the warmth of the car. Mostly.

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My first proper US Halloweeen

This year we had family to visit over Halloween. It was fantastic to welcome our first houseguest family now that we have the room to put them up, but the best bit was they brought children. This meant that we got to do all those things that we never usually do for Halloween.

Halloween is really big business here. The scale of the activites is mind blowing –  every farmer with a field has some sot of activities on offer and the shops are packed with Halloween merchandise, costumes, sweets, decorations, cards, pumpkin flavoured anything you can think of….

We went for the full on US experience – (clearly all for the benefit of the kids…) First we went on a hayride (a tractor pulling some trailers with bales of straw you can sit on) and went to choose our own pumpkins from a pumpkin patch. This was obviously followed by as pumpkin carving frenzy, which involved disemboweled pumpkins all over the kitchen.

We also decorated the front porch. I thought we’d done a pretty good job  -we had lots of spiderwebs, pumpkins and the piece de resistance was the sound activated spider that pounced on anyone walking on the porch.

It wasn’t until we went out trick or treating with the kids that we realised quite how much people make an effort about Halloween.  ALL the kids have costumes –we saw some great ones – my personal favourite was someone dressed as the shower from  Psycho, complete with shower rings and curtain. They were slightly incongruously followed by the psycho body scrub. Or was it the psycho loofah? I’m not sure (I don’t think I’ll ever get used to all the non scary costumes – the ladybirds, superheros and princesses.)

It turns out that many people in town make a HUGE effort with decorations – not just a few pumpkins but lights, dummies, things that light up, electonic bats that flap around. My favourite Halloween house was the one that set up a big video screen on the porch and sat around watching scary movies, all the while dispensing sweeties to the hoardes of children. And there really were hoardes of them…all roaming the streets in an Enumber fuelled frenzy.

NB: No of course we didn’t actually go trick or treating! We followed the kids round with a beer wagon! We did get dressed up the night before for a party though…

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